Reframing the Argument on Gay Marriage

Civil unions are necessary to ensure legal equality for everyone.

Posted May 09, 2012

Not many people in the United States were surprised by the passing of North Carolina’s amendment banning same-sex marriage. But what we should be surprised by is the extension of that amendment to domestic partnerships and civil unions. It is in this extension that the true threat to equality exists.

Marriage, as an institution, has evolved greatly throughout human history. Yet it was only in the 17th century that it began to involve the government. Until that time, the majority of marriages in Europe and beyond were granted by personal or religious– rather than legal– consent.

Today, marriage in the United States remains a ‘blended’ act. The religious institution must be ratified by the state in order to be deemed legal. Similarly, the legal union is often only recognized as truly ‘fulfilled’ by a religious ceremony.

Given the current overlap of church and state in this matter, things have understandably gotten a bit murky. Thus, the ability for religious groups to claim that the laws of equality in our nation do not extend to the institution of marriage.

I disagree. But I think that we’re fighting the wrong fight.

As tempting as it is to want to take on the gay marriage issue in the United States (particularly with inspiring developments like support from President Obama) the case for equality is better made through civil unions. Beginning in Denmark in the late 1980s, these legal instruments were created not only to reinforce the distinction between religion and government. But more, to ensure that every citizen– regardless of sexual orientation– has equal access to the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of domestic partnership.

In their continued forwarding of the ‘marriage’ issue, we are led by opponents of same-sex partnership into a national conversation about what religion has to say about the matter. Yet in this invocation, the real issue is subverted.

We are not a religious nation, no matter how many of our citizens consider themselves to be. Our founding fathers– in both the Constitution and the Treaty with Tripoli– ensured this as a means of guaranteeing autonomous government and the right of religious freedom for all people who might come to our shores.

In North Carolina this week, we were distracted yet again by the ‘marriage’ issue from the real matter at hand: equality. Which we can achieve by demanding the legality of civil unions– identical in nature to our current marriage laws– recognized by the federal and state governments for all couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Currently, we are a long way off from achieving this important goal. Only nine states have civil union laws that provide for some (not all) of the benefits extending to heterosexual marriages. And not one is recognized by the federal government.

I know that for gay men and women who long to be married and enjoy the cultural and religious equality of the institution, that setting aside this aspect of the fight might seem like surrender. But in fact, it is civil unions that we all– whether gay or straight– must staunchly and adamantly be fighting for.

Once secured, each of us may then choose to pursue a marriage ceremony in whatever religious, spiritual, or humanistic fashion we personally embrace. To honor our equal and equally-recognized union in whatever manner we hold dear. And, if we desire, to continue to petition religious institutions to alter their views on the matter.

Yet by fighting for marriage as legal institution that must be protected, we are allowing opponents of equality to use the veil of religion as an excuse to delay action... and equality. Remove the veil– remove the context of religion– and we are left having the only national conversation that matters legally: that all people have access to equal rights now.

Re-creating this distinction between civil unions and marriage is the only way to ensure that equality is what is actually being discussed. Let the anti-gay marriage movement champion their cause; let some insist that religion declares marriage to be between a man and a woman. Thanks to freedom of speech, that is certainly their right.

Just as it is the right, and the responsibility, of all American citizens to demand a legal institution that honors equality for all couples and families.